Election law cops shrug shoulders at apparent violation

The crime – or at least the appearance of one – is out there in plain sight.

The intended victim is prepared to testify.

But the investigators are nowhere to be found; not even curious, they say.

Prosecutors and Board of Election officials agree that state election law prohibits the offering of public employment in exchange for running, or not running, for office.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” said Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita.

But Sergio Rodriquez, Buffalo’s Republican candidate for mayor, said in a televised interview taped March 18 that unnamed GOP operatives dangled a job offer in front of him as an enticement for bowing out of the campaign.

“There have been offers made,” Rodriquez said.

The admission prompted Sedita to call for an inquiry in a recent interview with Investigative Post.

“What I think should happen is the state Board of Elections should investigative this,” the district attorney said.

Rodriguez, while not pressing the issue, said he’s “more than willing to cooperate if there is a formal investigation.”

But the two commissioners overseeing the Erie County Board of Elections said they have no intention of initiating an investigation.

They not only have the power to launch a probe, but the ability to use the State Police or a local law enforcement agency to conduct the investigation. But the commissioners say they’ll act only if Rodriguez or someone else with knowledge of the alleged job offer files a formal complaint that provides details.

“We’ve acted traditionally on complaints that were filed with the board,” said Ralph Mohr, the Republican commissioner on the Erie County Board of Elections.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to go and request that if somebody thinks this is a serious incident that occurred and there’s some credibility behind it, give us the facts and drop us a letter and say this is what occurred,” he said.

Both county elections commissioners must approve an investigation for the board to initiate a probe at the local level. In this case, Mohr and Dennis Ward, his Democratic counterpart, agree that they will not investigate without a formal complaint.

Board has broad investigative powers

A number of state political figures, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have criticized the Board of Elections at the state level for what they consider a lack of aggressiveness in investigating allegations of wrongdoing. But despite its considerable investigative powers, the state board typically conducts only a handful of investigations a year.

Investigations at the local level are even less frequent. Mohr and Ward could recall no more than a half-dozen investigations over the past 20 years involving serious election law violations.

State law charges the Board of Elections with the responsibility of “expeditiously” investigating credible allegations of violations of state election laws. Moreover, the law makes the State Police available to the board to conduct investigations if it so chooses.

The election law grants the Board of Election broad powers to conduct investigations which in some ways are more sweeping than those granted to district attorneys.

The board is empowered to:

  • Subpoena individuals and documents.

  • Compel the production of documents it deems relevant to its investigation.

  • Hold public and private hearings.

  • Hire special investigators at state expense if it opts to not use the State police.

The board, at both the local and state level, traditionally has used its own staff to investigate complaints. But it often cite a lack of resources, including too few investigators, as a reason for its failure to conduct more investigations.

Republican strategy to hold down vote in city

Rodriguez, a 32-year old Marine veteran, quit his job as coordinator of Veterans and Military Affairs at Medaille College to launch what some consider a quixotic run for mayor in November because Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in the city by more than seven to one.

The Republicans did not run a mayoral candidate four years ago and it is widely speculated they didn’t want to field one this year either. The reason: running a candidate would prompt more Democrats to vote in November, which would presumably help Democratic candidates elsewhere on the ballot.

The Republicans have two incumbents running countywide, Sheriff Tim Howard and Comptroller Stephan Mychajliw. The lower a turnout in the city, the better their odds of winning re-election.

Thus, the apparent desire of Republicans to keep Rodriguez off the ballot.

That led to this exchange with Rodriquez during a March 18 interview with Investigative Post:

Investigative Post: It’s been widely reported in the press that the Erie County Republican Party is not happy with the prospect of having a Republican running for mayor in November. There are other countywide races that they would like to see as low a turnout as possible in the city. Tell me about the discussions you’ve had with the Republican Party leadership and what they are telling you.

Rodriguez: Well, Jim, I think one thing that is important to understand is that these have been private discussions. They’ve been uncomfortable. And, certainly, we are in disagreement with where I feel the party should go in terms of going forward.

Investigative Post: Have they asked you point blank to not run?

Rodriguez: I’ve been encouraged not to run. Strongly encouraged.

Investigative Post: Have they offered you anything in exchange for not running?

Rodriguez: There have been some things that have come to my awareness in order for me to stop running.

Investigative Post: Like a job?

Rodriguez: You know what? There have been offers made, sir.

The candidate appears to be surprised by the controversy his interview has stirred. He’s been unwilling to expand on his comments, except to say that he’s willing to talk with investigators and concerned that an ensuing controversy could hurt his candidacy.

He added: “No official or agency has contacted me concerning the matter.”

Mohr said Rodriquez has had ample opportunity to bring the situation to his attention.

“Mr. Rodriquez has been to the Board of Elections twice that I know, because he’s come into my office and said ‘Hi Ralph, how you doing?’ (He) never once said ‘Ralph, I have a concern, somebody is trying to get me out of this race.’ “

Isn’t Mohr curious about Rodriguez’s situation given his comments in the interview?

“I had no curiosity with respect to it because I’ve heard instances where people go and allege things against their opponent that happened that don’t even have water,” he said.

Other job offers noted

While not commenting directly on the interview, Mohr agreed with Sedita that offering employment in exchange for not running is prohibited by law.

“It is forbidden under state election law to offer any kind of compensation to entice somebody to run for public office, or to not run for public office,” he said.

Yet the practice is perceived to be commonplace in local politics – and not always well hidden.

Most recently, Mayor Byron Brown in April offered a city job to Adrian Harris as he prepared to file petitions to run for the Buffalo Board of Education against Carl Paladino, who has struck an alliance of sorts with the mayor. The mayor personally offered Harris a job as a recreational aide that would have required him to work weekdays from 2 to 10 p.m., preventing him from attending Board of Education meetings.

Harris said Brown never mentioned his candidacy for the School Board. In an interview with The Buffalo News, Harris called the timing of the job offer, six months after he tested for for the position, as “really weird” and turned it down. A Brown spokesman maintained at the time there was nothing improper with the mayor’s job offer.

Paladino easily defeated Harris, his only opponent in last week’s election, for the seat representing The Park District.

A separate incident with curious timing involves the filling of the Common Council seat vacated a year ago March by Mickey Kearns when he won election to the state Assembly.

Kerns’ legislative aide, Matthew Fisher, applied to the Council to fill the vacant seat representing South Buffalo and gained the endorsement of Democratic Party committeemen. But a Council majority bloc aligned with the mayor opted to appoint Chris Scanlon, whose father was the former patronage chief for Mayor James Griffin who since 2008 has made seven contributions totalling $1,560 to Brown’s campaign committees.

Fisher initially signaled his intention to challenge Scanlon in a special election. But Fisher, whose employment with the city ended in late April, was offered his old job back at the same rate of pay by Scanlon after his appointment to the Council a month later. Shortly after he was rehired, Fisher, citing family considerations, said he was no longer interested in the Council seat.

Scanlon told The News he didn’t tell Fisher the job offer was contingent on him not running against him. But Scanlon said he “would gather” that Fisher would not run in the face of the job offer.

Board of Elections records show Fisher contributed $125 to Scanlon’s campaign committee about a week after receiving the job offer.

Mohr, the election commissioner, noted that it is often difficult to prove that job offers are made in an effort to keep someone off the ballot. At the same time, it’s noteworthy that the Board of Elections did not inquire about the circumstances involving the job offers made to Fisher or Harris.